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Bryan Harzheim takes a look at a few recently published academic books on Japanese cinema: Nippon Modern, The Attractive Empire, and The Japanese Period Film.
While the concept of "national cinema" has been often discouraged in light of discussions on the universal humanism of early Japanese film history, three new works of scholarship released in the past year shed much light on the specifics of the Japanese cinematic "golden age" -- roughly the country's period of greatest production from the 1920s and 30s, and even a little more. All three works discuss the details of Japanese film movements in the context of national, political, and social discourse; all three also provide much needed fresh perspectives and an accurate insight on both hitherto extensively analyzed and unexamined Japanese genres, directors, and films.
The first, Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano's Nippon Modern: Japanese Cinema of the 1920s and 1930s is not only the most vital and innovative contribution among the three, but also amongst books about Japanese film studies as a whole in the last year. Wada-Marciano's research on early Japanese cinema resembles superficially the approach that David Bordwell, Kristen Thompson, and Janet Staiger took in their industry-intensive analysis of old Hollywood by attempting to define a "classical Hollywood cinema." Unlike her Western predecessors who have previously taken an auteurist or formalist approach to discussing Japanese cinema's art and industry, Wada-Marciano attempts to define a "classical Japanese cinema," constructed largely in the 1920s and early 1930s, as a product not of single directors, but as an industry-manufactured approach to filmmaking that heavily emphasized modern national character and identity.
Her efficient study focuses on six key aspects of Japanese modernity manifested in its early cinema: Tokyo urban space, the middle-class film, modern sports and the athlete star, the woman's film, Shochiku Kamata style, and historical discourses in film criticism. Her dissection on Shochiku is especially insightful, for Wada-Marciano argues that the filmmaking practices of the studio – the only one of the major five to remain in Tokyo after not having its facilities demolished in the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake – were vital in promulgating the image of urban Tokyo in the contemporary drama (gendaigeki), in contrast with Kyoto's Japanese period pieces (jidaigeki). For the first time, modern audiences could view themselves – salarymen, housewives, and schoolchildren – in the very films they watched, helping foster a nostalgic and fictive national Japanese identity despite cinematic influences from the West or the cinema's "transformative power over community." Wada-Marciano forms a dialogue between film studies and other areas of study to create a compelling new narration of studio history, filmmakers' practices, and the image of urban Japan itself.
Michael Baskett's The Attractive Empire: Transnational Film Culture in Imperial Japan is a study of how national identity is formed through film culture which navigates a different tack but reaches a similar outcome. Rather than focusing on modernity and urban space, however, Baskett shifts his locus of films abroad, examining the attitudes, ideals, and myths of Japanese imperialism, as represented in its cinema. Baskett's study, like Wada-Marciano's, looks at Japanese film industry, concentrating less on the Western influences of Lubitsch and film noir, and more on its nationalistic aspect: in this particular instance, how Asia replaced Hollywood as the premier source of news, education, and entertainment.
The films Baskett discusses are from the very beginning of the 20th century to shortly after World War II, and while his study ultimately requires a wider timeframe to chart the changes in Japanese imperial cinema, his focus is primarily on the early-20s through the mid-40s, when Japanese colonialism in Asia began to rapidly expand. Baskett traces early colonial film production in Taiwan and Korea, and semi-colonial production in Manchuria, documenting how alternate and independent film industries cropped up there. As film culture abroad expanded, manga, pop music, and film journals followed, forming a multi-media connection with cinema culture, attracting mass audiences "linked together through filmic discourses over a variety of media all supporting the representation and consumption of Asia." As Japanese influence in Asia spread, Baskett argues that Japanese filmmakers abroad attempted to mask Asian differences in their films containing Chinese, Korean, and Southeast Asian subjects, creating a pan-Asian subject that embraced colonialism. Hence, film culture in Asia would contribute greatly to the Japanese imperialist aims of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere through creating positive visual representations of Japan's East Asian hegemony and superiority to Western ideals.
The third and final cinema book here, Sybil A. Thornton's The Japanese Period Film: A Critical Analysis, has an even larger scope, taking the history of the period film and charting it to its present day manifestations in Yoji Yamada's samurai trilogy. But again, the focus on formal properties exhibited in Japanese jidaigeki – the samurai and sword dramas and epics most familiar to Western audiences – are concentrated mainly on an earlier period of pre-war and immediate post-war cinema (though Thornton's analysis of Yamada's period pieces is fascinating). What makes Thornton's book so refreshing, ironically enough, is her insistence that Japanese film has been informed and continues to be influenced by its theatrical, oral, and literary tradition. Fears of being guilty of Orientalism have discouraged Western scholars from participating in culturally specific readings of Japanese film, avoiding the socio-cultural specifics to focus on formal properties in Japanese narrative.
It's no coincidence that Donald Richie, dean of Western criticism of Japanese cinema and invoker of much mono no aware and Zen-Buddhist readings into Japanese film, provides the introduction here, as Thornton's study is one of the most detailed and insightful to ever come out of Western scholarship on Japanese period film. Why this should be so is also no coincidence: Thornton has researched, written on, and taught Japanese cinema for what appears to be over half of her life. Her expertise has been crystallized in this book, taking into account Japanese literary and theatrical forms, from the genealogy of the period piece from the Buddhist sermon, to the thematic similarities between the samurai epic and the type scene. The study takes as its central aim the relationship between the past as it's depicted and the present audience's reaction to it. Once again ironically enough, Thornton argues that the jidaigaki has always been anachronistic in film, and that the function of the period drama is not only to describe the iconography and unique characteristics of the past, but to also see how filmmakers avoid censorship from government authorities to critique modern institutions. By avoiding the pratfalls of exclusively universalizing Japanese cinema, Thornton's study on the cultural history and specificities of Japanese cinema provides one with not only a greater understanding of Japanese period films, but Japanese art and cultural history as a whole.
Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano, Nippon Modern: Japanese Cinema of the 1920s and 1930s, , University of Hawaii Press, 2008
Michael Baskett, The Attractive Empire: Transnational Film Culture in Imperial Japan, University of Hawaii Press, 2008
Sybil A. Thornton, The Japanese Period Film: A Critical Analysis, McFarland, 2007
Date Posted: 10/3/2008